COMIC BOOK MOVIES, AND WHY THE CREATORS OF ART ARE NEVER THE ONES WHO
MAKE ANY MONEY, or WHY STAN LEE OF MARVEL COMICS IS A MULTI-MILLIONAIRE,
WHILE YOU’VE BARELY EVER HEARD OF JACK KIRBY.
by Ricki C.
(Before there was rock & roll in the Ricki C. universe there were comic books. I was born in 1952 and when I was four years old I taught myself to read with comic books that my brother & sister – ten & seven years older than me – left around the house. Al & Dianne were too old to be bothered with me at that point, and my mom & dad – children of The Depression that they were – both worked two jobs to keep our little West Side family afloat, so I had a pretty solitary childhood existence. Not a bad existence, by any stretch of the imagination, just extremely quiet. Before The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was twelve, superheroes brought The Noise to my world.)
The latest Marvel Studios movie – Captain America: Civil War – opens today and I’m definitely going to see it this afternoon, ‘cuz I’m kind of a sucker for comic book movies: but I’m not going to feel that good about it, since Jack Kirby’s family is not gonna see a penny from it, and Stan Lee is just gonna get richer.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were once a team. At Marvel Comics in the early 1960’s Stan Lee wrote comic book stories and Jack Kirby drew them. In rock & roll terms they would have been John Lennon & Paul McCartney. Or – more accurately – they would have been Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, since Marvel Comics were the Bad Boy counterparts to the ever-so-much more straight-laced DC Comics. (Home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, etc.)
Lee & Kirby ushered in the Age of Marvel in comic books – The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, The Hulk, The X-Men, Thor, Iron Man. Marvel superheroes were Superheroes With Problems: problems getting along with one another, problems with girls, problems turning into rage-filled green monsters, problems dealing with mutant powers while still teenagers, you name A Problem, a Marvel superhero had it. DC superheroes were a pretty homogenized lot – millionaire playboys, scientists, test pilots, Amazonian princesses, etc. – none of them had any trouble paying the rent, if you get my drift.
I liked DC comics, but I LOVED Marvel comics. And, as I look back now, I realize I loved Marvel comics more because of Jack Kirby’s artwork than because of Stan Lee’s writing. Plus I learned much later in life the modus operandi at Marvel comics was that Stan Lee would present his artists with a general outline of a story, the artist would go away and draw the entire comic book – essentially plotting the issue – and then Lee would fill in the dialogue & captions after the fact. I can’t imagine how that was a workable creative model, but that’s how it was done at Marvel in the 1960’s.
(editor’s note: Ricki, any possibility you could get to the point about your title? / author’s note: I’m tryin’.)
So really, by 1963 when The X-Men debuted at Marvel when I was 11 years old, I had fallen hopelessly in love with Jack Kirby’s story style, still thinking then that it was Stan Lee I liked. But by February 1964 – when The Beatles Hit America – my comic book days were all but over. By my 13th birthday in 1965, when economic realities (and teenage hormones) made it necessary for me to choose between buying rock & roll records or my first love – comic books – The Dave Clark 5 and Lovin’ Spoonful won out.
Here’s where my comic book and rock & roll analogy kicks in…….NOBODY in the comic book industry really made any kind of money back in the 1960’s. Comic books were still a kid’s medium, there were no dedicated comic book stores, no graphic novels, certainly no superhero movies. (There were bad, hokey Superman and Batman TV shows, but the budget for special effects in those was probably upwards of $80 or so per episode. CGI, indeed.)
Jack Kirby left Marvel Comics in a squabble over money & creative control at the end of the 60’s (hey, just like in a rock & roll band) and went over to competitor DC. There he engineered what I consider the highpoint of all comic book history, The Fourth World of The Forever People, New Gods & Mister Miracle (which actually should and maybe someday will be a whole separate blog). Ultimately Kirby wasn’t treated much better at DC than at Marvel, where he eventually returned.
Kirby died February 6th, 1994, exactly two weeks before Kurt Cobain and I didn’t even hear about it until more than a year later, after all the Nirvana noise died down. He left behind a wife & four children, owned a modest home in Southern California and was enough of a stand-up guy that I’ve never read a hateful interview about Stan Lee that issued from his mouth. But think about this: on our 21st century planet, Marvel Studios films – like today’s Captain America: Civil War – now generate BILLIONS of dollars for the parent company and – I have to believe – MILLIONS of dollars for Stan Lee (who rather egotistically makes a cameo appearance – a la Alfred Hitchcock – in EVERY Marvel movie).
What does Jack Kiby’s estate (and grandchildren) get? A quick mention of their gramps as a co-creator of the characters in the closing credits. (About the same as Cleveland boys Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster get in the Superman movies, after selling their rights to Superman to DC for $135 in the late 1930’s.)
Imagine an alternate universe where The Beatles never really made it big in the 1960’s: if they’d made a few singles, an album or three, had a couple of hits and then faded away to memory. Paul McCartney plugged away – did the Vegas circuit, kept things going – and John Lennon died of something other than a gun-wielding fan/madman in 1980.
Then, somehow, in the 2000’s some hipster movie maker finds the old Beatles records, throws them in his movies and Beatlemania EXPLODES 40 years AFTER it actually did. Paul McCartney – who’s still around, though creatively diminished – reaps the royalties windfall, and Cynthia & Julian Lennon (John is never famous enough in this alternate reality to meet & woo Yoko) get nothing but a mention of John in the credits. Does that seem fair?
Think about Jack Kirby while you’re watching Captain America: Civil War. I will be. – Ricki C. / May 1st, 2016
ps. The best book I've ever read about all this stuff is Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison. Check it out if you have any interest in comic books and/or superheroes.